Sage grouse-raising effort takes flight; thermal imaging technology used to raise species in captivity

Stephen Cornell and Josh Kipley co-pilot a drone on the outskirts of Powell Wednesday morning, testing it on a pheasant before using it to help locate sage grouse nests on Friday. After finding the nests, wild sage grouse eggs will be collected in an attempt to raise the species in captivity at the Diamond Wings Upland Game Birds facility west of town. Photo by Mark Davis, Powell Tribune.

POWELL — With sunrise still 90 minutes away, Karl Bear was already stepping out his front door into Wednesday’s predawn darkness with a worried look on his face. 

It was the first big day in what promises to be a historic week. 

Bear, manager of Diamond Wings Upland Game Birds, along with team members working with the Western States Sage Grouse Recovery Foundation, will be collecting wild greater sage grouse eggs from Wyoming nests over the next 20 days. 

The effort is an attempt to raise the species in captivity — a first in U.S. history. 

But first, the $30,000 drone and thermal imaging cameras had to be tested. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt this nervous,” Bear said. 

Standing near newly refurbished facilities across from his home, he reminisced. 

“So many people have been a part of getting to this point,” he said. “You know, it started 14 years ago with an idea of trying this experiment. And gosh, here we are. It’s amazing.” 

There have been many big days and a few disappointments on the road to what Bear calls “the great experiment.” 

First, Wyoming Legislature passed House Bill 271 in 2017, a law allowing private game bird farms to raise the West’s iconic grouse. The group has twice been given preliminary approval from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to attempt to collect up to 250 wild eggs, but the cost of preparing facilities forced Diamond Wings Upland Game Birds — then owned by Diemer True — to drop out of the program. 

Then in 2018, True sold the company to Dennis Brabec, petroleum engineer and co-owner of Fiddleback Farms, seemingly putting the experiment in doubt. 

The team had to thicken its skin as critics doubted the project could succeed. 

But things started looking up last year when True organized a foundation to help fund the project, facilities were improved and the company was given the green light for a third time. 

With a sunset clause on the legislation of five years and the difficulty of collecting eggs, hatching chicks and eventually attempting to rear a brood stock, this spring may be the last chance to prove Bear’s theories on raising grouse in captivity. It was now or never.

The Game and Fish only approved the use of drones in the effort about six weeks ago. Bear had been assured the drone and thermal imaging technology could be used to assist the foundation’s team in finding nesting hens, but he wanted proof. 

“I’m a ‘gotta see it with my own eyes’ kind of guy,” he said. 

Stephen Cornell and Josh Kipley pulled up in Bear’s drive shortly before 5 a.m. 

The duo are the brains behind the idea to use drone technology and thermal imaging to find nests. 

Cornell is the district manager for the Meeteetse Conservation District and Kipley is a resource specialist. 

The licensed drone pilots are assisting the foundation and spent the past two weeks becoming familiar with the DJI Matrice 210 V2.0 dualgimbal drone outfitted with a XT2 FLIR Tau 2 thermal imaging sensor, 4K visual camera and spotlight. 

Cornell has been studying sage grouse predators for the past eight years and has a ton of hands-on experience with the birds. 

A lot is riding on the fairly new technology. It has been used with other species, such as wild pigs and ducks and recently as an experimental tool to count grouse on a lek, Cornell said. The group could’ve used radio telemetry, but it’s a long, extremely expensive process of capturing hens and tracking them. 

Hundreds of thousands of dollars had already been spent in the past three years preparing for this moment. But if the team couldn’t find nests, all the money and a multi-year campaign working to become certified by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department would have been extremely disappointing. 

The drone can only be used in the early morning hours to identify hens sitting on full clutches of eggs. Later in the day, thermal reflectance makes it impossible to see the birds from the sky; if they get a late start, a full day could go to waste. 

Bear has lined up a bird dog to back up the drone team, should there be technical problems. Failing is not an option at this point, but he’s confident. 

A GPS location will be sent to the egg collection team once a nesting hen is spotted, and they’ll return to gather eggs hours later when the sun is up. 

Wednesday’s test involved using the drone to find pheasants foraging in a field near the Diamond Wings Upland Game Birds farm. 

“There’s still some bugs and kinks to work out,” Cornell said. “DJI has new software that’s not as user friendly.” 

After ironing out a few wrinkles, the drone hovered over the Powell field just before sunrise while, on the screen of the drone control module, the three men watched an undisturbed pheasant foraging 200-feet below. Cornell pointed out the pheasant — a glowing red dot moving on his screen — to Bear. 

The moment the burly manager saw the tail of the pheasant as the bird meandered a short distance in the sagebrush, a broad smile crept across his face. 

“It’s amazing,” he proclaimed. 

“There’s a lot of critics [of this project]. And, this isn’t the silver bullet,” Cornell said. 

“Obviously, habitat is the number one concern in conserving sage grouse. I think predation needs to get a little more attention as well,” he said. “But as Diemer [True] says, this is another arrow in the quiver.” 

The Diamond Wings Upland Game Birds and Western States Sage Grouse Recovery Foundation team will search for sage grouse eggs throughout the Big Horn Basin for the next three weeks, with oversight from the Game and Fish Department.